It was the summer of 1968. The Vietnam War was at its height, and Pan Am had been flying "R & R" flights in and out of the war zone. Wounded soldiers were taken to hospitals in nearby Guam and Manila. We stewardesses felt a strong obligation, whenever we could, to visit "our boys" there. We knew how hungry these young, homesick men were for a reminder of home, and, to be candid, how grateful they were for a conversation with a "round-eyed" female.
I'll never forget the first time I walked into the hospital in Guam. Never having been around seriously wounded patients, I had no idea what to expect. I suppose I was thinking we would just graciously converse with the young men, much like we did on the airplane. I was not prepared for an encounter with a dying soldier.
We entered a large, low-roofed room with many beds. There were soldiers everywhere, some chatting in groups, and others lying silently in their beds. I remember that it was very noisy, and the atmosphere felt chaotic. Some of the men were celebrating because their severe wounds ensured that they would be going home. Those lying ominously still in their beds would not be that lucky.
I don't know what drew me to the bed that appeared to be shaking, but I walked straight to it. There, under the sheets, was a young man who seemed to be trembling. As I moved closer, I saw that he had no arms or legs. It was an image that I just couldn't comprehend. I felt I couldn't possibly be seeing this, but I couldn't look away, either.
The young soldier opened his eyes and blinked, then blinked again. I could tell he wasn't sure if I was real or a dream. Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, "Who are you?" I told him my name and why I was there, but I'm not sure he could understand. If I could have held his hand, I would have, but he didn't even have arms! I felt dizzy and became aware of a deep heaviness that enveloped me. I didn't know it then, but that feeling wouldn't go away for at least two weeks.
The soldier was saying "Your face, your beautiful face. You're an angel." I knew that the only thing I could do for him was to get as close as I could, and return his stare. We were memorizing each other's faces. It reminds me now of the gaze between mother and infant. I don't know how long I stayed like that, but later my stewardess companions told me we'd been there about two hours. I'd never looked so deeply into someone's eyes and had that gaze returned with such intensity. It was obvious that he was tenuously holding on to life, and was not going to make it out of Guam alive.
When it was time for my fellow stewardesses and I to leave, I told the soldier -- whose name I never learned -- that I had to go. I stayed for another few minutes, during which he told me over and over, "I'll never, ever forget your face." I'm quite sure that he died within hours of my leaving.
In fact, it was I who never, ever has forgotten his face. I had, indeed, memorized it. I close my eyes and I can see him clearly after almost 45 years. I had the privilege of being with him in his last hours.
And he has remained with me.
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